This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing:
Review: “Feeders and Eaters”, Neil Gaiman, 2002.
This is not quite what Darrell Schweitzer would call an old-school-chum story, but it does feature an anonymous man meeting a work acquaintance from years ago. It seems to be implied he may be a celebrity who has fallen on hard times and then made it back but doesn’t want all the details of this incident made public.
The story seems set in some anonymous city in the UK (or, at least, a Commonwealth country given we have a Prince Regent Street) given some of the terms and the importance of passenger trains.
The narrator goes into a dive one night to get some toast and “greasy tea” until the next train comes that night.
He is suddenly accosted by someone he knew ten years ago when they worked together on a construction site, Eddie Barrow.
The years have not been kind to Barrow. Once large and handsome, a ladies’ man, Barrow is now thin and hunched over and has definitely aged. His right arm hangs limply by his side.
He starts to tell the narrator a story – and the narrator doesn’t encourage this thinking it’s going to be another tale of drink or drugs or disease bringing a man low – and that he’s going to be asked for money and he has just enough for a train ticket.
Barrow tells the narrator about when he lived in a rooming house owned by the Thompsons. He stayed in an attic room. In the other attic room was Miss Corvier. She’s old and doesn’t come to eat meals when served by the Thompsons.
One day he sees her coming out of the attic bathroom. Shortly after that, he finds a present at his door from her: a paper bag full of mushrooms which Corvier says she likes. She also says, “It’s astonishing the things people don’t eat. All the things around them that people could eat, if only they knew it.”
Barrow doesn’t actually eat the mushrooms, but, when asked by Corvier about them, he lies and says he did. A few days later, after the landlord’s family wonders about Corvier, whom they haven’t seen around, Barrows goes into her room to look after her.
She is, as always, old looking. Barrows (who, it seems, is good-natured and generous to women – perhaps explaining their love of him) asks her if she wants a doctor. She’s says there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just hungry. She asks for some raw meat, and Barrow gets some raw hamburger for her and watches her eat it, bloody juice and all.
At this point, in telling his story, Barrow gets rather defensive about Corvier eating raw meat saying it’s no different than steak tartar. He then asks the narrator a direct question. Has he ever eaten raw meat? The narrator confesses he likes to eat raw liver on occasion.
A while later, the landlord’s cat goes missing. One night, Barrows hears a mewling in Corvier’s room. He goes inside. She is not in. But he finds the cat – its legs and hind quarters partly eaten but still alive.
Out of mercy, he stomps Thompson’s head until the cat dies.
Just then Corvier comes in. She says she’s an old woman and needs her meat. Who’s going to feed her now?
Barrows then says something he repeats several times. If you had seen that cat you would have done what I did. But he doesn’t seem to be talking just about the cat.
Just then, there’s a tap on the diner window. Barrow gets up to go, and the narrator sees his right hand. Some fingers are missing, and it looks like something has gnawed on it like a piece of chicken.
Barrow goes outside to meet a woman the narrator assumes is Corvier. But he sees a thirty something woman with long hair, looking a bit like a hippy. “Sort of pretty, in a hungry way.”
She take Barrow’s arm, and they vanish in the night “like a couple of teenagers who were just beginning to realize that they were in love.”
The narrator gets up, buys some more tea, and stays a few more hours until his train comes.
The last paragraph of the story is very odd.
The narrator sees a woman carrying a baby in a bottle of formaldehyde. The last sentence is
“She needed to sell it, rather urgently, and although I was extremely tired we talked about her reasons for selling it, and about other things, for the rest of the journey.”
So what’s the point of the last paragraph? To show us that, in the early hours of the morning, you will encounter some disturbing strangeness and stories? Does the woman represent both sides of the Corvier-Barrow dichotomy having fed her baby and now, by selling it, metaphorically eating it? For that matter, is the baby merely the flip side of that – a metaphorical eater and now destined to be a metaphorical – or literal – feeder.
And what do the narrator and woman talk about? Is it significant to what seems to have been a bettering of the narrator’s situation? Will he become an eater?
It’s unsettling, but I don’t think that last paragraph was necessary. It raises too many questions and clearly implies too little.
There may be some suggestion intended in the names. “Barrow” is also a mound with a body underneath it. “Corvier” suggests “corvus”, thus crows, scavenging birds.
Gaiman may also be playing a bit with names. Barrow implies grave, and Corvier brings to mind a crow.